The West Fertilizer plant that was the site of last week’s devastating explosion and loss of life had at least 50,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia onsite -- yet the site’s operators told the EPA and public safety officials that it posed no risk of fire or explosion, according to the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH).
Fourteen people were killed and 200 injured in the blast, which leveled approximately 80 homes, demolished an apartment complex and temporarily trapped 133 elderly residents of a nursing home in rubble. The cause of the incident has yet to be determined.
In a statement released a day after the explosion, National COSH reported that company officials said the worst-case scenario would entail a 10-minute release of ammonia gas that would kill or injure no one.
Tighter controls needed at "inherently dangerous" facilities
National COSH executive director Tom O’Connor said the tragedy points to the need for stricter regulations of plants that store and use large quantities of hazardous chemicals.
“We need a system in which facilities that are inherently dangerous are required to develop detailed disaster prevention plans before they’re allowed to operate.” O’Connor said plans could be modeled after the “Safety Case” type used by European regulators of refineries and other hazardous operations.
National COSH said OSHA records indicate that the agency has never inspected the plant, and despite the fact that fertilizer manufacturing plants are known to be inherently dangerous to workers and the community, the agency conducted only two planned inspections of these plants in the entire country in 2012.
There are approximately 65 fertilizer manufacturing plants in the U.S.
Compliance with Process Safety Management standard unknown
“Additionally, because of the enormous amount of anhydrous ammonia the plant had on site, under OSHA’s Process Safety Management standard, the manufacturers should have developed specific plans for preventing chemical accidents like this,” said the group, in a statement. “However, reports have noted that compliance with this standard is spotty, and because OSHA never visited this site, it is unknown if the plant was in compliance with the standard. According to federal OSHA data, there are so few OSHA inspectors in Texas that it would take 98 years for OSHA to inspect each workplace in the state once.”
O’Connor said the explosion points to the need for more resources allocated to OSHA.
“We continually hear these days from corporate lobbyists and Republicans in Washington alike that regulations are killing jobs, but we saw last night that the lack of adequate regulations can also kill workers and community members,” O’Connor said. “If the anti-regulatory sentiment currently plaguing Congress and much of Washington, D.C., continues, disasters like last night’s explosion will continue to happen.”